Nick Thorpe, Category Manager for Solid Gear Safety Footwear at Hultafors Group UK, explores how behavioural safety is influencing shoe design, and details what features you should be looking for when purchasing safety footwear.

Safety footwear has evolved enormously over the last 200 years. While clogs and heavy leather boots were used by factory workers and miners in the 19th century, steel toe-cap and hobnail boots came to the fore in the first half of the 20th century, while army surplus footwear and rigger boots were some of the products used in the years that followed.

Protective footwear has obviously moved on light-years since those times, but some of today’s poorly designed and non-compliant safety footwear is as uncomfortable and damaging as stiff leather hobnail boots. 

The design, development, and manufacture of safety footwear in the 21st century is controlled by the regulatory framework provided by the European Directives for Personal Protective Equipment (CE EN 20345:2011), which ensures that every safety footwear product is designed to offer the right protection in compliance with these standards.

While governmental regulations control safety footwear design and development, product innovation is being influenced by advances in materials technology, the uses and applications of which are being driven by behavioural safety and user attitudes to style, design, and comfort.  

These are the key drivers in product design and development for many of the leading safety footwear brands. 

In recent years there has been an increase in the use of ‘behavioural safety’ or ‘behaviour modification’ approaches to safety product development, which involve the clear understanding of, and defining individual attitudes to, safe or unsafe behavior at work.

It’s a key issue for many employers, given that many accidents and injuries are attributable to inappropriate or sloppy attitudes at work. 

In terms of the overall management of health and safety practices at work, effective behavioural awareness among the workforce  – which comes from an effective understanding of health and safety issues – does reduce risk and injury.

For safety footwear manufacturers, this issue is compounded by design and fashion influences. Comfort, aesthetics, and style of products are key factors in encouraging workers to wear safety footwear and, by association, ensuring they understand the benefits of keeping their feet comfortable and protected. 

It’s a highly efficient vehicle for increasing workforce participation in health and safety programmes. Thus, the resulting behaviour and individual actions can positively influence the overall health and safety culture in an organization.

By using modern, high-tech materials in product design, 21st century health and safety is moving away from the old adage that high-protection safety footwear can come from simply having a ‘heavy boot’. 

While there will always be ‘traditional’ work boots in any safety footwear range, modern safety footwear can be lightweight with sporty-looking designs if they’re made from state of the art footbed materials, complimented by modern technical fibres and quality materials in the uppers.

If you look at the three different types of safety footwear – the shoe, trainer, and boot – these are the key components and design features you should be looking for.

Safety shoe

Many of the newest safety shoes on the market integrate some of the latest advancements in footwear technology. 

For instance, something which had previously been impossible to include in a safety shoe until now is the E-TPU sole which is designed to deliver superb cushioning and comfort all day. In effect it delivers a ‘bounce-back’ which gives a 55% ‘energy return’ that will put a real spring in your step to reduce fatigue and stress on your back, legs, and feet.

This kind of shoe should have a stretchable upper with Cordura for water-resistance. This will also enhance breathability, fit, and flexibility. This kind of shoe should have a non-slip sole, plus a composite midsole, and ideally a heel counter for foot stability.

Naturally the shoe has to have a toe-cap, but look for the new NANO toe-cap. It’s 40% stronger than fiberglass, lighter than other materials, and thinner than other non-metallic toe-caps. 

Safety trainer

Suitable for workers who are looking for something stylish and who are constantly on the move, this kind of safety shoe has a lightweight athletic look, as well as fully compliant safety features. 

The shoe’s midsole should be made of a poured PU rather than a traditional injected PU to give a more cushioned feel underfoot, added to which a thick rubber outsole will provide a high level of anti-slip protection and durability. 

Furthermore, BOA comfort fastening, durable uppers will deliver a better overall fit making it easy to take the shoe on and off, especially when going in and out of people’s homes.

The shoe should also have a fibreglass toe-cap which, with the ballistic midsole, will combine with the other protection features and anti-static properties to deliver S3 protection.

Safety boot

Given the wear and tear they have to put up with, feet deserve better than a cheap boot. 

Rigger boots might be easy to get on or off, but for maximum comfort, protection and durability, look for a best-in-class, technical safety boot that integrates modern design with best-in-class materials for water protection, comfort, durability, and a sporty look. 

A waterproof and breathable GORE-TEX lining will keep your feet dry and comfortable, while a Vibram outsole and Cordura Ripstop fabric in the uppers offer great protection and ruggedness. A fibreglass toe-cap will also ensure fully compliant protection.

Additionally, with a BOA closure system, pressure will be distributed evenly across your feet for maximum comfort and ensure a glove-like fit and keep them dry, warm, and comfortable.

Ultimately though, ensure you choose a boot that provides the wearer with the ultimate foot and ankle protection and support to reduce the risk of injury